Wearable tech is continuing to shift beyond fitness and there's been a noticeable move to brain analysing devices through 2016.
Neuroverse's BrainStation is one such example. The company's inaugural device has been in the works since 2012, and is still to get a release. The device is set to be a kind of Fitbit for the brain, which looks to solve a host of neurological problems, such as dementia in our ageing population.
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It works via controlled brain training exercises, to help provoke neuroplasticity – an umbrella term for the forming of new connections in our brains. Neuroverse CEO Dr Ricardo Gil-da-Costa met us at WebSummit 2016 in Lisbon to talk us through the tech.
"One of the things we realised is that there are several brain markers, which can be detected using EEG and other techniques. We know which neural networks produce which brain waves, relating to attention, memory, whatever," he said.
BrainStation works by putting you through a series of games, using wireless EEG sensors to look for those neural markers.
"We find these markers and then use those deployed in games and exercises, so we're tracking the effects on your brain and not just your behaviour."
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To use an analogy, it's a little like a heart rate monitor for your brain. While you can go for a long run, you only get fitter if your heart rate hits the right level. While many game trainers take your brain on a metaphorical run, Neuroverse says it will check your brain's activity to make sure that exercise is having the desired effect on aspects such as reaction times, attention span, memory and decision-making.
A new way to control VR
But perhaps the most surprising aspect of BrainStation and Neuroverse is its application for virtual reality. Gil-da-Costa revealed that the company has been working on an SDK for its technology for use by other hardware makers – and it's got gaming in mind.
"We are using the API and have a version of BrainStation we call BrainStation VR, which works with game engines like Unity and Unreal," said Gil-da-Costa.
"In the demo you're inside a space station. You can focus and relax to control things, pull objects towards you and use blinks to shoot guys," he continued.
But while that all sounds fun, the blinking aspect of BrainStation VR has applications beyond just Matrix-style games. It could solve one of the biggest problems of VR gaming: how to move around.
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"We worked with Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. We can do very quick moving around teleporting using eye blinks. One of the problems of VR is how you move – you need controllers. With BrainStation VR you move your head, but what you do is make a teleport system on the floor as a green square. And when you look and double blink it teleports you there."
Gil-Da-Costa believes this could signal an alternative to controllers like Oculus Touch (below), with the BrainStation device able to detect blinks on a neural level. While he admits eye-tracking isn't part of the package, users can turn their head to move the green reticule and then double blink to teleport. It could have huge implications for the medium.
"We talked to different big players. We have iron clad NDAs but let's say big guys out there. One way is to do it is via a hardware integration, but the problem is you need to respect the integrity of each others' technology. It's better to be platform agnostic. All of them have a USB port so we can basically use that to interface, and you use an SDK and the BrainStation VR," explained Gil-Da-Costa.
"It clips on top of the headset and plugs into the USB. On the VR version we have an extender for the sensor and it sits on top of the headset. It's plug and play," he continued.
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And the company has been monitoring the brain activity of users in VR, too. While it hasn't found any evidence of synapse-melting side effects, it's looking at the possibility that VR could provide supercharged neuroplasticity effects that could re-energise our brains as we age.
"I think the level of engagement really makes a difference," he said. "There's some very interesting studies done at UCLA using VR for chronic pain management, for burn victims and oncological patients, and they've found that they can reduce the doses in drug treatment by combining them with VR."
And Gil-Da-Costa says a VR treatment could end up being more powerful than the standard app the company is already developing.
"It could accelerate neural changes we don't know yet. But what we're getting is very high attention levels and focus when you're in VR, and we're interested in cortical plasticity."
But can playing games actually fix our broken brains?
"Some of the basic research like done by Adam Gazzaley is very good, and there's a possibility of neuroplasticity. But you need to do it exactly right, and it's not just a game."
The analogy of BrainStation being a fitness tracker for your brain is something that Gil-da-Costa is also keen to build on, as the company develops its device.
"The other thing is what do you do with this data. One thing we have been doing is creating a brain tracker – like a fitness tracker, same deal – so you can see days, pick them, see your brain score, and compare the last two month or two days and we're working with our design team to work out what's the best way to visually represent them," Gil-da-Costa said.
The company has a seismic task ahead in getting the BrainStation to market, and Gil-da-Costa is brimming with so many ideas that focusing the device might be as difficult as building the technology. But if Neuroverse can do something to reverse the deadly dementia pandemic, we're right behind it.